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Over this Lenten period, we have focused on Jesus’ repeated command to love one another, to love each other, as he has loved us. In the first week, we focused on the ‘primacy of love’ – that this command is central to Jesus’ teaching, practice and expectations of us. Love is not just something Jesus does, it is who he is. Indeed, it is who God is! It is the essential identity of God, who has existed in loving fellowship within the Trinity, since before the beginning of time and space. And thus, love is to be the defining identity of ourselves, individually and collectively, as Christ’s followers.
In the second week, we unpacked the qualities of this love, things like sincerity, goodness, brotherliness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing, forgiving, depth, sympathy, compassion, humility and hospitality. Many of these qualities suggest that we make ourselves smaller and less important, less dogmatic and opinionated, as we make space for others.
In the third week, we moved towards the dark side of love – what does the failure of love look like. We recognized that it is often when we are dogmatic, opinionated, rigid and arrogant that our behaviour and disposition towards others becomes unloving. In Jesus’ book, being ‘right’ is far less important than being good, kind, inclusive, generous and patient.
And then in the fourth week, last week, we reflected on love expressed as acceptance and unity. Acceptance implies being willing to make space for people who are different to us (in race, culture, gender, language, etc.) and with whom we have different views (on politics, theology, practises, etc.). Acceptance does not require us to agree, but to tolerate and listen to other ways of being. Unity implies that, even in the midst of difference, we work together as a unit towards common goals. In this, Christ is our head – he sets our path for us, and we, as bits of his body, cooperate towards his vision.
This week is the last week of our Lent programme, and we focus on loving encouragement. We are invited to think about how we build one another up in faith and competence and confidence, to each play our part in the body of Christ. It is about affirming each other. That affirmation often involves recognising what someone brings to our collective, appreciating it and encouraging its expression. It is also about recognising when someone is struggling with life and reach out to them with compassion, care and support.
Let’s start in Ezekiel 37 – the story of the valley of dry bones. The people of God are feeling dried up, dusty, hopeless, cut off, scorned and dead. It is then God’s breath that brings them to life. God twice says, “I will make breath enter you and you will come to life” (Ez 37: 5&6). But although the bones came together, “there was no breath in them.” And so God calls on Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath: “Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live”. And Ezekiel writes, “So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; and they came to life and stoop up on their feet” (Ez 37:9-10).
The Hebrew word for ‘breath’ is ruach, and can also be translated spirit. It’s the word used in Genesis 1:2, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. So this word ‘ruach’ can be mean’s God’s breath, our breath and the Holy Spirit – indeed all of these! It is God’s breath, with which he speaks, that enters the dry bones, empowered by the Holy Spirit, bringing them to life. Ruach brings the dead to life, brings them out of their graves!
Just as Jesus brings forth Lazarus from the grave, by his word, his breath, his ruach: “Lazarus! Come out!” (John 11:43). And out he came!
When we speak loving to each other, we are using our breath, and speaking with the Spirit of God who dwells in us – it is our ruach that can bring life to those around us. A kind, gentle, affirming, encouraging word can go along way to bring new life to someone who is feeling dried out.
Our psalm for today, Psalm 130, reads like the cry of those dead people in the valley of death in Ezekiel. You can imagine them crying out with these words, “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord. Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (Psalm 130:1-2).
This Psalm speaks more to those who need encouragement, than to those who offer it. There is a call to those of us who are feeling dry and tired and dead to wait on God, to trust in God, to kindle some faith that there is forgiveness and mercy, hope and redemption. We need to call out to God: Lord, hear my voice! And in v5 we hear again the breath of God: “In his word I put my hope” – it is as God’s speak that we find our hope. When are needing encouragement, we need to allow ourselves to yearn for God, to turn to him for refreshment, to seek his life-giving spirit.
So, loving encouragement has two main sides: first, we are invited to be attentive to the needs of those sitting around us here in church and to speak words of life and encouragement to them. And second, when we are feeling dried up and frail, we need to speak up and call on God and on those around us for God’s Spirit, God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s restoration. In so doing, we stand in the light, love and breath of God – we are encompassed around by his Spirit, we receive life and find our place in the Body of Christ.
So, as we close today, let me read to you the words of encouragement that Paul speaks to the church in Thessalonica when they were feeling stuck in darkness: 1 Thes 5: 4-11, 14b-24:
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. … And we urge you, brothers and sisters, …encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
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